Men Are Falling Behind
And their problems are fueling the rise of the populist right.
One of the most striking trends in recent years is the growing gender gap in voting and political attitudes. Women are moving left. Men are shifting right. Not all of this can be dismissed as misogyny: Many boys and men face real challenges in education, work and family life. But left unaddressed, the problems of men are being exploited by skillful populists like Donald Trump. It’s clear that if we want to preserve liberal democracy, we’ll have to do a better job of helping boys and men.
The evidence of men shifting to the right in recent years is overwhelming. In 2016, Donald Trump secured the presidency of the United States with a 12-point lead among men, identical to the 12-point lead that Hillary Clinton enjoyed among women. This was the widest gender gap in the half-century history of exit polling. Among white men, who make up a third of the electorate, Trump’s margin over Clinton was 30 percentage points, compared with only a two point margin for Trump among white women. Even as he lost in 2020, with college-educated men swinging back towards the Democrats, Trump still won most male votes, and increased his support among Black and Latino men. Some of those trends will continue to pose a challenge to Democrats in tight races in November, especially with a stronger rightward shift among Hispanic men than among Hispanic women.
The political gender gap is starkest among younger adults. Only 25% of men under the age of 30 describe themselves as liberal, compared with 44% of their female peers. Similarly, just 33% of male millennials approved of President Biden’s performance according to Gallup polling conducted between May and September of 2022. This contrasts with Biden’s 49% approval rating among female millennials.
This rightward march of men is an international phenomenon. Across the world, men are more likely than women to support right-wing or protest parties. In Sweden, for example, over a quarter of men support the far-right Sweden Democrats, nearly three times the level of support among women. Again, there is often a significant age gap at work. In the UK’s Brexit referendum, there was no gender gap among those aged 36 or older, but younger women were more likely to vote to remain in the European Union than younger men.
Finally, in addition to the gender political divide in voting patterns, there is perhaps an even bigger divide—among both men and women—about gender. As the political scientist Nicholas Winter notes, back in the 1970s Democrats and Republicans did not disagree very much about the impact of feminism. But by 2016, it was one of the biggest partisan differences. Just 26% of Republicans think that progress for women “hasn’t gone far enough,” compared with 69% of Democrats. Three out of five Republicans now believe that “society punishes men just for acting like men,” compared to just under a quarter of Democrats.
What’s going on here? I think the basic story is as follows: Many boys and men are experiencing real problems—in education, work, and family life—which skillful populists are exploiting to foment anti-liberal and anti-feminist sentiments. These politicians have adopted a strongly anti-feminist rhetoric, blaming men’s problems on the excesses of an alleged radical leftist women’s agenda. In this way, genuine problems are metastasizing into grievance politics.
Consider this: Most American men earn less today than their counterparts in 1979 did. This is obviously an important fact of economic life, but it helps explain other problems too: why men are at a three times higher risk from “deaths of despair” from drug overdose, alcohol or suicide; why one in four fathers are not living with their children; why ten million prime-age men are out of the labor market; and why so many men are open to populist arguments that the “liberal elite” has screwed them over.
One reason the plight of working-class men is so often overlooked is that men at the top of the economic ladder are mostly doing fine. Wages for men in the top 10% of the male earnings distribution have risen by 42% since 1979, compared to a fall of 8% for men in the bottom tenth. (Meanwhile, women’s wages rose across the board over the same time period, though this overwhelmingly benefitted those at the top—women in the top 10% saw their wages rise by over 70%, while for women in the bottom tenth the rise was only 10%.)
So, many men, especially working-class men of all races, are facing negative economic and social trends. Always alert to a potential grievance, Donald Trump was able to mobilize many of these men to his army. When he said that it was “a very scary time for young men in America,” he was scorned by progressives. But it was a message that likely resonated with many men and at least some parents.
The dangers here are clear enough: Real male problems are being exploited to push our politics in a populist direction, threatening the norms and institutions of liberal democracy. Whether we like it or not, anybody worried about liberal democracy also needs to worry about boys and young men.
But in the current political climate, while the right ignites male discontent, the left ignores it. Too often, progressives deny the reality of problems for boys and men and dismiss concerns about them. If a problem is acknowledged, it is typically blamed on men themselves, as expressions of “toxic masculinity” or similar. This is not a winning approach.
Instead, the way to win men back is to recognize and tackle the actual problems boys and men are facing. In my book Of Boys and Men, I suggest some ways of doing this, from reforms to create a more male-friendly education system—including starting boys in school a year later (because boys mature at a slower rate than girls) and a national recruitment drive of men into teaching—to male-tailored job programs and equal paid leave for Moms and Dads.
There are also plenty of existing policy ideas that will disproportionately help boys and men. Expanding health insurance is a pro-male policy, for instance, because men are at higher risk of being uninsured than women. Investments in vocational education and training will also give much more of a leg-up to boys and men.
If sensible politicians were more willing to talk about the benefits of such policies for men, this would help cut off the right’s populist rhetoric at its very root. The most glaring missed political opportunity here is infrastructure investment. Infrastructure benefits everyone, of course; but in terms of job creation, it is especially good for men. The $550 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will create around 800,000 jobs, especially in construction, manufacturing and transport. About 70% of those jobs will go to men, mostly working-class, and including high shares of Black and Hispanic men.
President Biden has rightly sold the infrastructure plan as one that will help working-class Americans; improve U.S. competitiveness, especially against China; create union jobs; and tackle the climate crisis. But the fact that it also particularly helps men has not been mentioned. Politics is not only about what you do, but also about what you say. The fact that the infrastructure investment helps men should be presented as a feature, not a bug.
One response to all this is: “Yes, but what about all the problems still facing women?” And it is a problem that, for example, women earn 82 cents on the male dollar (largely because the labor market heavily penalizes childrearing). But it is also a problem that men earn 74 bachelor’s degrees for every 100 earned by women. We can think two thoughts at once. None of the policy solutions I have listed requires backing off from continued efforts to break down barriers for women and girls.
As Daniel Schwammenthal, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Transatlantic Institute, says: “The iron rule of politics is that if there are real problems in society and responsible parties don’t deal with them, the irresponsible parties will jump on them.” If we are serious about maintaining liberal democracy, we need to get serious about helping boys and men.
Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Of Boys and Men.
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